September 2012

Indelible

listen to this story
 
John sits in his darkening living room and watches the sky bruise. The clouds seem to hang low enough to touch the second floor balcony before him, and he very nearly gets up, opens the double doors, and sits there, but his legs have become rock. The paralysis creeps up his spine, pushes him deeper into the leather sofa’s plush, and he cannot look anymore at his living room, his own view of Casper Mountain’s foothills. He faces west, the wind and the reservation, and though it is a hundred miles out, he cannot look. He can only remember.
           
The judge said that John is an experiment in social grace, letting him walk that he might mend his ways, become a triumph of the human spirit in the face of a real tragedy. John knew and knows this is no experiment. This is a long-quantified result: same country club plus twenty-three years of private practice law plus white Western aristocracy equals a courtroom in John’s favor and not in favor of a skinny, almost-eighteen Arapaho kid from the res or his dead parents. Flint Yellowknife had sat in the courtroom, his head down and face veiled by long black hair in need of a washing, and he hadn’t looked up more than once or twice during the quick trial. Not that John had been looking at him much; he didn’t know how to look at him, had been focusing on his broken nose. And his nose still hurts, broken by the steering wheel when the cars collided. He didn’t feel it that night—wasn’t feeling much of anything, that night, save the wash of gin in his stomach and a pleasant September sweat. But in the courtroom, it throbbed. Tonight, too, his blacked eyes ache and the merry hell of humidity (storm coming tonight, and let it come) leave him aching. He will not let himself have so much as Tylenol. This is punishment. Punishment worse: his sister came earlier, and he is nearly a thousand dollars poorer in liquor, the cherry cabinet echoingly empty. His fingers itch for a chill-wet glass, but there is nothing for it now.

His charge had been commuted to reckless driving, community service, speeches at local high schools. Quietly, off record, twelve steps and some time off from work. But “someone crossed the double yellow,” his law partner had said before the court, and, unspoken, let us not blame the dead. Gary Yellowknife was a known alcoholic (while John had prided himself on being one unknown), and Yellowknife’s ancient grandmother, someone told John, had come to the morgue right away, taken the bodies of her grandson and his wife home for burial. Refused autopsies. Refused everything. He can’t say whether they were drunk or not, but he knows he was when he got into his car. Knows he didn’t remember how he’d gotten there when he woke up in the hospital, when the county sheriff said that he’d been in an accident, that there was a body count.

“Not that you could have told the before or after for their car,” the sheriff said, and John does remember that he had laughed. He laughed. He clenches his empty hand and gets up. He is halfway to the bar when the emptiness of the cupboard re-registers. Georgia’s cold fury in the clinking bottles. She took the bag of them along, too.

“I hope some group pickets in front of the driveway,” she said. “Justice system, my ass.” The door slammed so hard something fell off the wall in his office, he thinks. He hasn’t been back to look.

That’s when it started to sink in, the echoing quiet after his sister’s noise. The way the pulls and thumps of the accident started to seep from his skin. He’d been wearing his seatbelt. The Yellowknifes’ car hadn’t had seatbelts. His own chest is a thick purple bruise, but nothing is broken save his nose. He puts his head back and breathes as shallowly as he can.

A lightning flash wakes him from dreaming the courtroom again, where Flint Yellowknife has no face, only a fall of black hair all the way around, and the startle snaps him forward hard enough to make his nose ache again. It feels like it’s bleeding, though it probably isn’t. Still, he gropes for a tissue, tips his head back, and watches for another flash to come. His mother said not to sit beside the window in a lightning storm. Even his sneakers wouldn’t save him.

He wonders why he doesn’t turn on the light—everything is dark enough without the lack of tungsten glow—but the sky’s electricity is enough for him. Well, it’s not enough, but it’s something. His eyes unfocus and he tries not to think of any liquid save the water that isn’t falling from the sky. The air is dry as dust, bristling in his throat, and the hair on his arms prickles up with static. John tries to keep his focus on the play of purple-white forks against the black of Casper Mountain, but he is so tired. His eyes flicker closed until he cannot tell what of the lightning he is actually seeing, and what of it is only the flash through his eyelids. He sees without seeing, and he is convinced that he’s asleep again when some shape breaks the paler background of his balcony. By the time his eyes open far enough that he feels that he can see what he’s seeing, the dark crouch elongates, turns into a man, a slim shadow. The sky cracks whitely again, and John would rub his eyes if he could be absolutely certain they were fully open. Maybe this is a dream in a dream, the kind where waking up is a compound fracture. Flint Yellowknife stands on John’s balcony, and they both see that they are seen. A dark smudge runs down the boy’s face, and there is some kind of spill around the neck of his pale shirt.

John scrambles for the light and the telephone at the same time, and the receiver falls from its cradle. He is dialing before he picks it up fully, watching the young man on the porch watching him. He is not entirely certain who he is even calling—he thinks it might be the police, but he cannot hit the buttons without looking at the keypad, and he is hitting more than one at once. The recorded message of “cannot be completed as dialed” pings in his ear. He does not know the number for the police station, and he cannot make himself dial the emergency number. This is not an emergency. Yet, his brain says, yet. At all, he says. This is not an emergency. Emergencies are surprises, and this should not be a surprise to him.

He swallows the prickling air and puts the handset down. It doesn’t sit square, the dialtone humming up. Flint stands beside the balcony railing still; he has not come closer, but he moves: his forearm scrubs once over his face. He stares, and though there is not enough light to see his eyes, John can feel their target.

His knees unbend before he can stop them, his feet carry him to the many-paned French doors. There isn’t a reason he can think of that there isn’t a brick flying through the glass, and his yard has been exceptionally full of dogshit these past days.

“Young man,” he says. The door is still closed, but the movement of his mouth was enough, maybe, because now the boy moves, moves fast and crosses the wooden slats so quickly it is as though he is the one made of lightning, not the sky. But Flint Yellowknife is not slicing lavender light. He is brown and his face is slow. Even his upper lip curls slowly enough for John to take in the unveiling of his teeth. The left front tooth is crooked, slanted enough to overlap the right, but his teeth are as white as the boy’s shirt is not. The dark smear is blood, and blood rings his snarling lip: his nose bleeds. Then the boy’s arm lifts, and the narrow side of his fist, something dark caught in it, rocks one pane’s glass. It sounds like a gunshot. John jumps, and the fist lands again. This time the glass spiderwebs like the delay of forming frost, then caves and splinters free, a strangely wet sound at John’s feet. Flint Yellowknife reaches through the opening for the door handle. The door swings open, and John braces. The boy, though, shuffles forward now, his eyes as hard as his fists, and he doesn’t pass the wooden threshold for the carpeted room.

John wonders still—again—if he is dreaming this. “Your nose is bleeding.” It’s all he can think to say.

Now Flint spits, toward the carpet, and it spatters dark. “Like yours did.” His voice is higher than John remembers it from the courtroom, but then he remembers, also: he never heard him speak there. His demeanor was deeper, then, his hunched shoulders so much more broad-looking against the wooden benches.

“You broke it.” Flint shoves his thumb beside his own nose, mimicking the crookedness that, yes, the steering wheel had done. It’s straight now, though, fixed at the hospital, and he sees that Flint’s is not, that it sits slid-right above his left-cocked tooth, and the whole of it moves just a little at the press of the boy’s finger. Another small rush of blood trickles out, and Flint sniffs it back hard. This time he doesn’t spit, and John’s stomach curdles. “Looks bad, doesn’t it? Feels worse. But you know.” He lifts the hem of his shirt to wipe his face, baring his flat brown stomach, and now the red smudges cover most of him.

John wants to get him a paper towel or a washcloth, but he can’t bring himself to move, to offer him anything. “What happened?”

A shrug. “The porch supports.”

John startles. The kid fell, probably on the first attempt at climbing the square posts. The kid fell off his porch and now he can sue the hell out of him. It’s happening all over the country. There was the woman who spilled her coffee in her lap last year, and litigation exploded. The knowledge brings strange relief. “You didn’t fall far? Didn’t hurt anything else?”

Now he spits again. “I didn’t fucking fall.” He puts his hands out, grips something between them, and snaps his head forward into air. His sneer returns.

He didn’t fall. The gesture makes John feel slow and dense, thick as cotton, because if the answer is the obvious one, he doesn’t know how to manage it. “You—smashed your face into the post on purpose.”

“You drank yourself into a stupor on purpose. You got in your car on purpose.” His fingers clench.

Now John knows why he is here, and again, he feels oddly calm. “I didn’t kill your parents on purpose.”

“Accidentally is worse,” Flint says, and his throat sounds bloody-wet.

“Let me get you some ice.” John is already turning for the kitchen, taking a step, and the shove propels him nearly into another bookshelf.

“Fuck your ice.” The words are barked, and when John turns, Flint has a knife. It is a folding knife, a hunting knife, the kind the people in Casper wear on their belts to the grocery store and even to the bank and no one thinks to blink. John can’t blink now.

Though his mouth is dry, John puts out one hand. He had a training course on conflict resolution, once, long ago, before he passed the bar. “Easy,” he says.

Flint laughs, and he coughs. He doesn’t respond to the gesture or the word, though John keeps some attention on his own fingers, lest they be cut. The knife isn’t pointing out, though it is out, and that is enough. The knife points west, parallel with the line of the mountain behind him, and Flint is dragging his own forearm across the blade before John can think to move.

“I know what you feel,” he says, and he sniffs again, his voice shaking, but John doesn’t think it is from the pain of the cut. Blood wells from the split muscle. “And this is how I feel,” he says, and his thumb and forefinger leave the knife, spread the flesh so now it gushes. “No,” he says. “This.” The knife rakes again, and Flint Yellowknife’s blood drips and pools on the hardwood.

“Stop.” A corner of reason says this is not a boy ready to kill himself in front of John—the knife strokes across the top of the arm, not on the thin-skinned underside, but still—so much red.

“Fuck you.” Another splitting line. “Does it hurt you more than it hurts me?” His face is proud, unflinching.

John thinks first that he must be on something, but perhaps not. Perhaps this is only his way of showing that he cannot be broken by this hurt because he shows no sign that his body feels anything. He is deliberate, not manic, and John wonders what all he killed in the courtroom.

“Please.”

“What do you care?” Now Flint swallows, and John thinks of the sour-copper taste of blood; the air is thick with it, and it pools in Flint’s stomach.

“Don’t hurt yourself.”

            This doesn’t hurt. Not like here.” His hand lifts, and John feels his throat catch, but Flint reverses the knife so that its handle thumps his chest. “Do you know?”

The only thing he can do is shake his head. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know at all. “Give me the knife.” He holds out his hand.

The bony fingers tighten. “So you can call the cops?”

“No.” John doesn’t quite know why he’s asking. But it’s not so he can call the cops. He isn’t sure what he would even say to them; yes, the one pane of glass is broken, yes, the boy is trespassing. Yes, he has a knife. But he isn’t threatening John with it, and part of John nearly wishes he would. Then there would be a response to this: he could call the cops. Or he could accept the threat, take it into himself with the blade, and be done with the shame and knowing. But Flint Yellowknife, for all of his sullen silence in the courtroom, is not helping him in that way. Some wry corner of his brain says that perhaps Flint has studied law, because this is so far only a misdemeanor, and he is young, and he is distraught. There is no sane jury to convict on that. But again: there ought not have been any sane jury to let him walk, no judge who ought to have given him fines and community service. John shakes his head, and Flint looks at him, puzzled. There was nothing to shake at, nothing spoken into the air.

“What?” He stops cutting. There are four two-inch lines on the top of his forearm.

“The knife,” John says. He hardens his voice. It is not a request. And the savage light pricks behind Flint’s eyes again. The handle slaps into John’s palm, and Flint’s arms hang steady at his sides.

“Yeah, fine.” Red rivulets drip. His chest sticks out behind his stained shirt. “Yeah.” And then he waits. His gaze never drops, and John holds the knife, and he doesn’t know what he’s going to do with it. He should fold it, maybe get some duct tape from the garage, and wrap it closed. Then get antiseptic and towels and bandages. He should call someone to take the boy to the hospital, because stitches might not be a bad idea. He can’t tell for certain, but still, the red spots gather on the floor.

But John doesn’t fold the knife. He looks at it. He thinks he is looking for initials—is this his dead father’s knife? But there is no indication; the handle is only molded, textured plastic. Despite the blood, the grip isn’t slippery. He turns it over, back and forth, but the flat dull blade tells him nothing, except that the brand name etched into it is one he hasn’t heard of. Flint puffs air through his mouth, and then his teeth grit, bared and brash. He is not looking away again, and if he is waiting for John to turn the knife on him—

“Do it, pussy.”

John startles, and the knife shakes. “Do what?”

Now Flint says nothing, and his lips sew themselves closed. His head jerks sharply, half an inch to the side. There’s no reading it. John has never been good at reading people. He reads reports and precedents, and those are the things he is good at. He reads labels and alcohol content and is good at ignoring those. Was. He can’t do that again. He wants to do that again. He wants the scotch his sister upended in the drain, the gin alongside. He should be thinking about the money, about the cost of those things, but money is beyond him right now. All he wants is moisture in his throat. Outside, the sky is still as dry as sand, a black blanket cut by threads of lightning. He misses the darkness, before the lamp came on, because the yellow light is too clean, too real. This moment is not at all real. John turns the knife again and holds up his own forearm. When the two connect, he cannot believe how much it hurts, the slice of it sharp and stinging. He drops the knife, and it lands tip-first in the wooden floor, stands for a moment, and then is borne down by gravity. “Fuck,” he says. “Fuck.” It doesn’t even feel like a word. It’s just something.

Flint Yellowknife kicks the blade with his sneakered foot, and it scutters until it touches the carpet. It leaves a red point in the cream-colored nap, but so has the spit.

“You don’t deserve to live,” Flint says. John doesn’t understand how it is not angry-sounding. But it isn’t. The voice is as flat as the ground outside.

“No,” John says. He hopes Flint will understand that it’s an agreeing kind of no. Somehow he seems to.

The boy turns his back, and John doesn’t want him to leave. The feeling sparks hard and fierce, but he cannot summon any kind of gesture to go with the feeling. He only closes his hand tighter over his bleeding skin and hunches. Flint spits again, this time through the broken glass, and it’s too dark to see where it lands on the patio. He steps, and it is not toward the open French door. He steps onto the cream-colored carpet, walks toward the hallway, where other rooms branch off. John doesn’t say anything to stop him before he reaches John’s bedroom and the guest room, though he leaves spot-spot-spot trails from his fingertips. Flint disappears into a doorway, and in a few seconds, he reappears. He crosses the width of the living room—past the couch facing the mountain, past the armchair and the television. When he passes that, he drags his fingertips over the screen, and they smear. He is gone into the kitchen—knives, larger knives, for chopping and boning—but there is no rattle of drawers. The light flips on in the bathroom, though, and water runs, and the boy comes back with the whitest of John’s towels. There are dark blue ones, hanging on the bar by the shower, by the sink, folded in the cupboard beside the toilet, but these are ivory and have hardly seen use. They had lain under the blue ones, and John pictures the red hand-prints across the cabinetry. A wet washcloth hits him and is followed by a dry towel. Flint covers his own arm with one, wraps it tight.            He is wiping his face with the towel around his arm, and the blood smudges away less and less, until there’s only something like a shadow under his nose. Flint sits on the couch, tilts his head back, and holds the towel to his nose.

“Ice—” John says. Ice. No, an emergency room.

“Shut up.” There is so little heat in his voice. The wind picks up, though, and swirls through the open door, the ruined glass.

John dabs at his split skin, and he knows it’s not as deep as it feels it is. The cut is not as deep as those on the boy’s arm. He could not even do that much. His breath comes out through his nostrils, and the scene makes him angry. “You need stitches.”

“No, I don’t.”

“We need a doctor.” Infections, scarring, the permanent crook in the boy’s nose.

Flint raises his head just enough to look John in the eye. “I don’t need one, and you don’t deserve to take up one’s time.” He settles back again, his black hair rucked up against the cushion. “Might be one of them that actually helps the people who need it.”

John thinks hard. He can’t remember the accident, not clearly, but he thinks he remembers seeing body bags. They don’t put people in body bags who aren’t already dead. He doesn’t remember the EMTs helping anyone else, there on the side of the road. “I don’t think—” he starts, but he can’t finish. He doesn’t know, and he can’t talk about the dead.

“That’s fucking right.” Flint Yellowknife stands, and he walks out of the room, not through onto the balcony, but through the kitchen, down the stairs, through the front door. John hears the door open, but he doesn’t hear it close. What he hears is the wind chasing rain down from the mountain, the sound of it rasping the brown prairie until the rain scours the wood, rough as wire. Minutes pass, and he is sure Flint Yellowknife is gone, and the wind slams the front door closed.

John doesn’t know what to do next. So he sits, where he is, on the edge of the carpet, the broken glass scattered at his feet, the drops of blood settling into the carpet, becoming permanent.

 

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